Randolph County residents await judge’s decision in wet/dry lawsuit as hearings progress

by George Jared ([email protected]) 182 views 

State law allows county clerks to throw out entire signup sheets in liquor sales petitions if one of the signers lives outside that county. Judge Phil Smith may ultimately decide if that provision is constitutional – a decision that could resonate statewide.

Keep Revenue in Randolph County submitted more than 6,000 signatures to Randolph County Clerk Rhonda Blevins earlier this summer in an attempt to get the issue on the November ballot. Only 3,452 signatures were deemed acceptable by Blevins, which left the measure 361 signatures short, per state law.

The organization filed a lawsuit against Blevins, and both sides made arguments before Smith on Wednesday (Aug. 24) at the Randolph County Courthouse. The plaintiff’s attorneys argued that hundreds of signatures were discounted because they were on petitions that also included signatures from people who listed their home address as being outside the county.

State law allows a petition to be struck in this circumstance. That means about 800 signatures were directly tossed because of this provision, according to the Randolph Clerk’s Office. Attorneys argued that recent court decisions have found that just because one signature might be invalid, it doesn’t compromise the rest. In this case, five signatures were collected per petition sheet.

“I think it’s a legitimate position to take … I’m going to allow them to make a case,” Smith told the court as the plaintiff’s arguments were being made.

Blevins spent the better part of the day on the stand being grilled by attorneys from both sides. She told the judge her office conducted a thorough and comprehensive review of the petitions. Some were struck because the signer wasn’t a registered voter, or other information was incorrect.

“I followed the law,” she said. “I think we went beyond … to come up with this number.”

At one point Blevins did admit she studied the law pertaining to alcohol sales very little before the petitions were brought to her office July 20. Much of her testimony was spent explaining why some legitimately registered voter signatures were struck. Many of them listed an address outside of Randolph County, and that was an automatic disqualifier, she said.

Attorneys fired back, noting that some of the struck signers might have more than one address, such as a college student who left the county to attend college, or the person might have a second home where they get their mail. Blevins said her office didn’t have the time or resources to vet all those claims.

The Arkansas Attorney General’s Office, the Randolph County Clerk’s attorneys, and lawyers representing concerned citizens in the county who don’t want the measure on the ballot represented the defense in the lawsuit. More than 100 spectators packed the courtroom, and there were audible moans and grimaces as arguments unfolded.

Handwriting expert Dawn Phillips testified at least 45 petition pages out of the more than 1,000 submitted contained commonly authored or possibly forged signatures. She couldn’t say conclusively that the signatures were forged, but she said it was likely in several instances.

Judge Tim Weaver shot down a similar court case in Independence County on Tuesday. His decision was referenced by defense attorneys numerous times during the hearing.

In 2008, Smith presided over a lawsuit in Sharp County to block alcohol sales from appearing on the ballot there. Smith ruled that enough signatures were invalid in that case, and the petition to allow a vote was denied. Voters in Sharp County did vote overwhelmingly to turn the county wet in 2012. Emboldened by the success in Sharp County, residents in Randolph County tried, but failed to garner enough signatures in 2014.

Proponents of legalization efforts touted the county’s lost revenues as a motivation to drive alcohol sales in the county. A University of Arkansas study indicated that the county would have about $3.3 million in retail alcohol sales each year, and the county and the city of Pocahontas would collect about $107,000 a year in sales tax, combined. It would create at least 19 jobs, and have another $1.3 million in other economic impacts.

Court will resume at 9 a.m. Thursday.